I have been fortunate over the years to have so many fantastic learning experiences. I owe that mostly to my parents, two career educators who constantly pushed me, inspired me, taught me, and showed me that learning is not a one-way street, nor is it a final destination with a clear end point. It is a lifetime pursuit, one that requires constant teaching and learning. My father is a presidential historian and was a college president. My mother was a high school English teacher. So our daily family dinners were constant learning experiences, and a practice I now look to replicate with my own children.

But my truly defining learning story was what happened when I was outside of the classroom and beyond the watchful eye of two committed and caring parents. It happened when I arrived at the University of Virginia and began my postsecondary education. When I started at Mr. Jefferson’s University, I was one of only three students from West Virginia enrolling that year. There were more students from Bangladesh than from the neighboring Mountain State. I was lost my first semester on Grounds. I felt like I was going through the motions, doing what was necessary but not exploring the paths that were available to me. And then I discovered The Cavalier Daily.

For me, my collegiate experience was defined by the time I spent at The CD, U.Va.’s student newspaper for more than a century. Courses were secondary, my true classroom was the newsroom. At The Cavalier Daily, I learned how to write passionately. I learned how to ask probing questions. I learned to take nothing at face value. I learned to question authority. I learned about collaboration and teamwork and the value of a job well done. I learned responsibility and dedication. And I learned how to teach.

I spent three and a half years gaining my greatest life lessons on those daily pages of broadsheet. I learned technical writing as a copy editor. I learned about hard work as a sportswriter. I found my true voice as an opinion and a sports columnist. I learned about innovation by establishing the nation’s first business section for a collegiate newspaper. And I learned about leadership, mentoring, and attention to detail as managing editor, overseeing a volunteer staff of 150 and the production of a 16-page daily newspaper.

When I arrived at the University of Virginia as a first year, I was certain I would follow the path of many before me. Four years of economics and political science courses, and then onto law school. The Cavalier Daily altered that path significantly. Instead of law school, I headed to Capitol Hill, where the lessons learned in the newsroom were put to use in a Senate press office. The CD was the ultimate classroom for me, and my tenure with U.Va.’s newspaper was the ultimate learning experience.

The experience has left me with two quotes that have guided my life ever since. The first was on the masthead of each and every edition of the newspaper we printed. It is from Thomas Jefferson himself, who said, “For here, we are not afraid to follow truth where it may lead, nor to tolerate error as long as reason is free to combat it.” The second if from the great baseball philosopher Yogi Berra, “If you don’t know where you are going, you might just get there.” For me, Berra’s words have guided my path ever since I arrived in Charlottesville, and explain my unlikely turn toward student journalism. And Mr. Jefferson, his words continue to guide me as an activist, a reformer, and an agitator.

(Patrick R. Riccards is the chief executive officer of Exemplar Strategic Communications. He is also author of Eduflack, http://blog.eduflack.com, one of the nation’s leading education reform blogs.)

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